Mark Twain: Frequently Asked Questions

by Rebecca Floyd, Manager of Interpretive Services |

Why is Samuel Langhorne Clemens known as Mark Twain?

He adopted the pen name in early 1863 when he was a newspaperman in California. It referred to his steamboating days, when the measure of the depth of the water was expressed with a crewman’s cry “mark twain!” meaning two fathoms, or 12 feet.

Who were some of his influences as a writer?

Sir Thomas Malory, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, William Dean Howells, Rudyard Kipling, Bret Harte, folk tales, mythology – and above all, real life in America.

Was he right- or left-handed?

Many photos show him with his pen in his right hand, and there is documentary proof that he was right-handed. In the 1890s he began to experience severe rheumatism in his right hand and tried to write with his left. In his later years the pain led him to dictate more and physically write less.

Did Mark Twain travel a lot? Did his family travel with him?

Yes, he traveled all over the world, and yes sometimes Livy and the girls went with him. For information about his travels check out his books The Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, and Following the Equator; Clara’s My Father Mark Twain, and other sources.

Was Sam Clemens a religious man?

The easy answer is no, but it’s a huge question that is still quite energetically debated. He came from a Christian upbringing, and Livy came from a strong religious background as well. Clemens was very interested in different spiritual philosophies, and what drove people to follow them. He was fascinated by the history of religion and the stories of the Bible. In Hartford, he attended the nearby Asylum Hill Congregational Church, and one of his very best friends was the minister there, Joseph Twichell. He was a questioner, and he lived in a time of changing religious views.

What was Sam Clemens doing during the Civil War?

Sam Clemens did not officially enlist in any army. His story of his brief experience in the Marion Rangers, a Missouri militia formed to defend against federal incursion at the beginning of the war, was the subject of his story “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed.”

In 1905 he wrote that “we joined the Confederate cause not because we wanted to, for we did not, but we wanted to be in the swim. It is plainly a law of nature and we obeyed it.” When the Rangers disbanded, he accompanied his brother, a Lincoln appointee, out West and more or less left the war behind.

When did Mark Twain die?

April 21, 1910, in his sleep. He suffered from numerous age-related conditions, including angina, rheumatism (arthritis) and chronic bronchitis.

Didn’t one of his children die?

Yes, they all did at some point.

Be serious!

You are probably asking about Susy, who died of spinal meningitis at the age of 24. Sam and Livy were in England when they received word of her illness. Livy did not get back to Hartford in time to be at Susy’s bedside. The family never lived in the house again after that. Sam Clemens wrote quite movingly about their loss, both in letters and in his autobiography.

Of the others, their only son, Langdon, died at 18 months in 1872. Their youngest daughter, Jean, suffered from epilepsy and only lived to be 29, dying in 1909. Clara, the middle child, lived to be 88 years old. She died in 1962.

Did any of his children marry?

Only Clara married, and she had a daughter, Nina, who died without having had children. Samuel and Livy Clemens do not have any direct descendants.

Where is he buried?

The family members are all buried in Elmira, N.Y., Livy’s hometown.

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